Jacksons’ Path to ‘Victory’ : Miniseries to Trace Family Highs, Lows


In a dark and dingy old elementary school auditorium, a pop star is being born.

Make that reborn, because thanks to the makers of the ABC miniseries “The Jacksons: An American Dream,” we’ve been transported back to 1965 to a PTA meeting in Gary, Ind.

A tiny Michael Jackson stands alone and nearly motionless on a school stage, singing his 6-year-old soul out. His angelic face is turned to the heavens, his arms and clenched fists rising slowly at his sides like little wings.

As his high but strong voice soars toward the climax of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” the child’s body beneath the sports coat and bow tie is still stage-stiff with inexperience. But Michael’s precocious musical maturity is filling the hall for all to hear.


When Michael finishes the first public solo performance, the audience leaps to its feet and applauds. Michael’s mother, Katherine Jackson (Angela Bassett), wipes a tear from her eye, turns to her husband, Joseph (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), and says, “I guess you’ll have to make it the Jackson 5.”

Young Michael--played by 9-year-old Alex Burrall, who was lip-syncing to a recording by 13-year-old singer-actor Anthony Harrell--has proven he’s ready to join the family band. The rest, as they say, is pop history.

That scene will appear about 40 minutes into “The Jacksons: An American Dream.” The four-hour miniseries is a family-oriented drama about the humble origins, multimusical triumphs and intra-family squabbles of the Jackson parents and their famous children.

Scheduled to air next season--probably during the November sweeps--the movie finishes four weeks of filming in Pittsburgh’s working-class environs this week and then moves to Los Angeles for another four weeks.

“An American Dream” is a complicated undertaking. Using three sets of actors to portray the six Jackson boys at three periods in their lives, it opens with the postwar courtship of parents Katherine and Joseph Jackson and continues through the early struggling days of the Jackson 5 to the triumph of the “Victory” tour of 1984.

Co-executive producers Stan Margulies (“Roots”) and Suzanne de Passe (“Lonesome Dove”) came to Pittsburgh for economic reasons, but primarily because the city could stand in well for industrial Gary, as well as for other parts of the Midwest.


Pittsburgh will provide the reality for the family’s struggling early days, which consume most of the first two-hour segment. L.A. locations will be used to depict the dream-come-true years, Margulies said.

The miniseries will be filled with the original versions of many of the Jacksons’ Motown and post-Motown hits, with the actors lip-syncing to the songs. Pre-Motown tunes like “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” will be sung by young musicians chosen for their resemblance to voices of the Jacksons when they were young. There’ll be enough music from all the Jacksons and others--like the soulful a cappella group Boyz II Men--to fill a soundtrack CD.

De Passe, a former Motown executive who now heads her own film and TV production company, has the rare chance to be a character in her own movie. While at Motown in 1968, she brought the Jackson 5 to the attention of Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr. She then worked closely with them during their formative years on everything from choreography to their touring needs.

When the actress playing her was hired, De Passe said, she made sure she was “adorable and a good actress.”

“American Dream,” she said, is going to be an entertaining, romantic, dramatic, accurate, family-oriented story with a lot of good music, but it isn’t going to be all “nicey-nicey. It’s got teeth in it. It’s not painting a rosy picture all the time.”

The miniseries also will deliver an important and especially timely message too rarely told on TV or in movies, De Passe said.


“American Dream” will tell the tale of “a lower-income black family that employs all the middle-class values that I think all of us sort of altruistically hope would always be the case--that life could be a place where hard work, teamwork and discipline pay off,” she said.

“It’s important for kids of all races today to see that the Jacksons didn’t start off with Rolls-Royces and Cadillacs and that their father and mother worked hard--really hard--and kept them together.”

“American Dream” has been in the making for three years. It took a year for all the Jackson brothers and sisters and their lawyers and managers (except La Toya, who is a minor character during the years covered) to approve the screenplay, which was researched and written by Joyce Eliason (“Small Sacrifices”).

The movie ends with the “Victory” tour for several reasons, Margulies said. “It was the high-water mark of the Jacksons’ success as a group. It involved all six of the sons on stage together. And it marked the point where the Jackson family healed many of its internal wounds and came together again as a family.”

Michael, who had final say over the three actors who would play him at ages 6-8, 13-14 and in his early 20s, quickly approved all three of the producers’ choices. Director Karen Arthur and others on the set invariably refer to the actors as Michael 1, Michael 2, Michael 3, Tito 1, Tito 2, etc.

Among the children, the heaviest focus will be on Michael’s career. But the real stars of the movie are not Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, Michael, Randy, Rebbie, Janet and La Toya. It’s their parents, Katherine and Joseph.


The genesis of the movie came from Katherine Jackson’s lament that too few people know how tough the family once had it. Jermaine Jackson, 37, who with his wife, Margaret Maldonado, is producing “American Dream,” clearly remembers how rough things were. He remembers his mother working part-time jobs, his dad working overtime at the steel mill and the family sometimes having only potatoes to eat.

Jermaine, whose 15-year-old son, Jermaine Jr., is one of the actors playing him, credits his parents with bringing them up right.

“We had a good, sound foundation,” Jermaine said. “We had direction. My father and mother did the right things. They may be criticized now, but they did the right things for us. They wanted it to happen for us, and it did.”

Co-executive producer Margulies said as far as he’s concerned the Jacksons’ saga is “a classic American success story. It’s also about the price of fame, and what it costs the family to achieve that success.”

It isn’t intended to be a docudrama, said Margulies, but it is being made as accurately as it can be. He acknowledged that some of “American Dream” is flattering to the Jacksons. But that is not the movie’s intent.

Margulies said the least flattering aspect of “American Dream” revolves around Joseph’s strict discipline. (La Toya claimed in her 1991 autobiography--and her parents denied--that her father abused her as a child.)


“One of the most fascinating things is that without his single-minded obsession and drive--just getting those kids into line, rehearsing and rehearsing, and occasionally being hit with switches--they’d still be in Gary,” Margulies said.

“But that drive ultimately results in great family rifts. The point comes when the kids don’t want their father to be their manager, and, in a literal sense, to even be their father anymore. That’s not flattering.”